Ronaldo center stage as Champions League resumes
LONDON - The Associated Press
Tonight’s Champions League game against Manchester United will mark Real Madrid’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, where he rose to superstardom in the first place. AFP photoAs a player who relishes being center stage, Cristiano Ronaldo will be in his element tonight when the Champions League resumes with a blockbuster last-16 match between Real Madrid and Manchester United.
United transformed Ronaldo from a prodigiously talented yet hit-and-miss winger to one of football’s most devastating goalscorers in his six years in the Premier League.
He has blossomed even further since his world-record transfer to Madrid in 2009, leaving United manager Alex Ferguson with the unenviable task of taming the player he nurtured into one of the world’s most complete footballers.
Ferguson has been showering his former protege with praise in the build-up to Wednesday’s match and, as a self-confessed regular watcher of Madrid’s matches, will have seen Ronaldo score a 20th hat trick for the Spanish giants in a league win over Sevilla on Feb. 9.
“[Zinedine] Zidane was a fantastic player, [Luis] Figo was a fantastic player but not as good as Ronaldo,” Fergsuon said, comparing Madrid greats of the past decade.
“He’s beaten all the records there. He’s beaten (Alfredo) Di Stefano, (Ferenc) Puskas, Hugo Sanchez, all their records. He is indelibly printed in their history now. Ronaldo is pivotal to everything they do.” After a two-month break, Europe’s top competition returns with three other last-16 first legs this week. All eyes, though, will be on the Santiago Bernabeu for the game between two of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Mourinho’s Real career in balance
“It’s a match the world is waiting for,” Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said Sunday. “They are not waiting for other matches in the Champions League. So I hope we can give the world of football what they’re waiting for.”
Madrid’s hopes of retaining the Spanish league title are almost over as it trails Barcelona by 16 points, and the widespread opinion in Spain is that Mourinho’s job depends on the club winning Europe’s top prize for a record 10th time.
“I think Jose has set his sights on the European Cup this year, there’s no doubt about that,” Ferguson said of his friend and rival Mourinho, who is bidding to become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
Casillas suffers from injury
United has no such worries domestically, leading the Premier League by 12 points with just 12 games left, so much of Ferguson’s attention could also shift to Europe and adding to the club’s haul of three titles in the competition.
Ferguson has won just two of his 14 meetings with Mourinho, with the two coaches now great friends away from the football pitch having initially had an uneasy relationship.
“I want to win and he wants to win,” Mourinho said. “But I believe the loser, in the middle of being a bit sad, will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because their friend has won.”
Madrid’s major injury loss is goalkeeper Iker Casillas, out with a broken hand, but United don’t have any major concerns.